Personal profile portability

I haven’t minted a TLA for ages - I think I might be the the first to come up with PPP for Personal Profile Portability as a convenient handle to wrap around the current flavour of ‘data portability’ being touted by the major ‘walled-garden’ social network sites.

Both MySpace and Facebook have recently launched initiatives to open up a little….but not too much.

MySpace has announced its Data Availability project with some major partner applications. Essentially, this will encourage the user to manage ‘profile’ information on MySpace, with a view to surfacing this information in other, partner applications (initially Yahoo, eBay, Photobucket and Twitter. It will also allow users to share some data such as photos which they have added to the MySpace site. Facebook has a similar initiative called Facebook Connect , initially in partnership with Digg. In both cases, a set of usage policies will be imposed such that the user retains control over what is shared, with the power to revoke the sharing agreement. I’m really encouraged to note that in the case of MySpace’s Data Availability, the mechanism adopted to solve the inter-authentication/authorisation issues between these systems is an implementation of OAuth.

Amit Kapur (MySpace’s Chief Operating Officer) says that Data Availability is:

”…founded first and foremost on allowing users to have comprehensive control over their content and data.”

Dave Morin of Facebook believes that:

”…the next evolution of data portability is […] about giving users the ability to take their identity and friends with them around the Web, while being able to trust that their information is always up to date and always protected by their privacy settings.”

The extent to which users ‘have control’ over their content and data even while it has been completely locked up within the MySpace and Facebook applications has been argued about extensively. The relationships between these sites, their users, and their users’ data have evolved over the last year or two, as users have become a little more savvy. Pressure from groups such as DataPortability appears to have had an effect, with MySpace also signing up to this recently.

So, it seems as though the walled gardens are opening up, getting ready to participate in the wider web. Or are they?

In a web of distributed social networks, the most likely way in which users might manage their participation would seem (right now) to be through a single entry point. Essentially, if the web of social networks is going to allow ‘single-sign-on for the user, and allow a re-use of profile information, and even content across multiple applications, then one model is to give the user a ‘gateway’ service, where they sign-on and manage their ‘account’. Both Facebook and MySpace are going to battle hard to be that gateway service for the masses. Both have accepted that they can no longer remain as a completely walled garden - they must open up, just a little, to avoid being eventually marginalised. But now that they are not totally closed, they may find it difficult to retain control. They may find others are waiting to seize the initiative. Enter Google, and its Friend Connect service.

Friend Connect is different to the previous initiatives from Facebook and MySpace. Google’s new offering is designed to provide a ‘middleware’ services, sitting between the big social networks, and sundry web applications which might want to exploit the new openings in these services. It also utilises components which have been developed with the OpenSocial API. Friend Connect is, I think, a very significant development, because it shows how more distributed social networks might work. It is significant also in a particular detail - notice how Friend Connect can become a social network of sorts simply by integrating existing social networks. Suddenly, the huge headstart enjoyed by Facebook and MySpace doesn’t look so unassailable. This is, presumably, the real reason why Facebook have taken steps to block Friend Connect.

I suggest that because they have been walled gardens for so long, neither Facebook nor MySpace really know how to succeed as middleware. They have always been the destination - never really a component in someone’s workflow. By contrast, Google has always offered services which the user employs en route to a different destination. Google understands this kind of arrangement fundamentally. Expect to see increasingly desperate measures from MySpace and Facebook to retain control while Google quietly grows its Friend Connect service.



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